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The socio-economic issues of agroecology: a scoping review


In recent years, agroecology has gained prominence as one of the innovative approaches to agriculture that could positively contribute to achieving sustainable food systems. As a transdisciplinary science, agroecology could benefit from the contribution of socio-economic sciences. This study aims to give an overview of how scholars have approached socio-economic issues in the field of agroecology. A scoping review was conducted by using the PRISMA-ScR method, searching both Scopus and Web of Sciences databases. The selected body of literature (183 articles) provides an overview of the key socio-economic dimensions analysed in the literature on agroecology and the results achieved by scholars. The findings allowed drawing the research gaps and the future research directions in this domain.


Agroecology is an “old” concept that has acquired a growing importance in scientific, agricultural, and political discourses in recent years (Mouratiadou et al. 2024). Since the first use of the term in the 1930s, the definitions of agroecology have continuously evolved (Wezel and Soldat 2009). Currently, agroecology is widely considered as an innovative approach to agriculture aimed to achieve sustainable and equitable food systems that can be understood as: a transdisciplinary science, a set of practices, and a social movement (Méndez et al. 2013; Gliessman 2018; HLPE 2019). As a transdisciplinary science, agroecology includes elements from several disciplines (Dalgaard et al. 2003), increasingly focusing on the transformation of the whole agri-food system (Wezel and David 2020) to reduce environmental impacts and enhance social justice, food security, and nutrition (HLPE 2019). Compared to other approaches concerning the transition towards more sustainable food systems, the agroecological literature has still several gaps preventing a full understanding of its potential (D’Annolfo et al. 2017). For example, the economic viability and sustainability of the agroecological model are still debated. Indeed, one of the most contested aspects of agroecology is its assumed unprofitability, which would make it dependent on public financial support (van der Ploeg et al. 2019). This argument could be a main obstacle hindering the uptake of agroecological transition. However, recent literature provides fresh insights about positive socio-economic outcomes of agroecological farming models (Mouratiadou et al. 2024). Integrating empirical and informal knowledge into modern agroecological research is an emerging challenge, and there is a need to ensure that technological innovations are accessible and appropriate for diverse farming communities (HLPE 2019). Moreover, compared with other innovative approaches, such as sustainable intensification, it is still disputed whether the agroecological transition of food systems can deal with ongoing food security and nutrition challenges (Bezner Kerr et al. 2021). Translating successful small-scale agroecological practices to larger agricultural systems poses also challenges, and research needs to explore strategies for scaling up these practices while maintaining their socio-economic benefits (Sourisseau 2014). There are still significant gaps in understanding the social and economic impacts of agroecological practices, including the dynamics of farmer decision-making and community-level outcomes (D’Annolfo et al. 2017), as well as the impacts of agroecology on society at large (Gonzalez de Molina 2013). Bridging the gap between agroecological research findings and policy implementation is also crucial to ensure that evidence-based practices are integrated into agricultural policies (Sabourin et al. 2018). In sum, getting a better understanding of these socio-economic and political factors is necessary to identify drivers and barriers to foster the agroecological transition (Sanderson Bellamy and Ioris 2017; Giraldo and Rosset 2018).

Against this backdrop, the role of economics discipline can be relevant (Fresco et al. 2021) and the present research falls in this domain. More specifically, this study aims to provide an overview of how scholars have approached and contributed to the socio-economic knowledge about agroecology. To reach this objective, a scoping review was performed to systematically map the research done in the field of agroecology for assessing the socio-economic issues of agroecological transition. This literature review aims to reply to the following research questions:

RQ1 What are the main socio-economic issues of agroecology that have been analysed?

RQ2 What are the main results achieved by scholars on the socio-economic issues of agroecology?

In addressing these research questions, our review contributes to map the existing literature on agroecology by highlighting the main socio-economic issues and the results achieved. Finally, we contribute to the literature by highlighting the research gaps that allow us to define a future research agenda. As general outcome, the present research is fundamental to reach a comprehensive understanding of how researchers have approached so far the socio-economic dimension of agroecology, thus highlighting burning issues, and allowing for the development of holistic and context-specific approaches to inquiry in this field.

The following sections describe the methodology of research, the results, the discussion of results, and conclusion.


The scoping review is an ideal tool to characterise scientific literature on a given topic, determining the amount and type of extant studies. Scoping reviews are useful to bring out underinvestigated areas of inquiry and to eventually suggest the formulation of specific research questions (Colquhoun et al. 2014; Munn et al. 2018).

The review protocol was drafted using the PRISMA-ScR methodology—namely the extension for scoping reviews of the PRISMA protocol (Tricco et al. 2018)—, and databases search was conducted on 18 January 2023. The scoping review process consisted of four stages: identification, screening, eligibility, and analysis (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

PRISMA-ScR flow diagram of the selection process

In the first stage, we designed a searching protocol incorporating inclusion criteria and keywords for the application in two different databases, namely Scopus and Web of Science Core Collection (WoS). The search query was based on the Boolean combination of three keywords, i.e. agroecol* OR agro-ecol* AND econom*, applied to the following search fields: article title, abstract, and keywords. These keywords were chosen with the scope of identifying those studies that focus on agroecology by including the economic dimension. To get variants of the provided search terms, asterisk (*) at the end of the keyword was added. In the identification stage, a total of 5,436 entries were retrieved from both databases (Table 1).

Table 1 Databases search query

The identification was further refined by applying automatic filters in each database (Table 2). In detail, the selection was restricted to articles published in the period 2013–2023, following the assumption that scientists’ interest in this topic increased after the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition held by FAO in Rome in 2014. To gather only high-quality publication, we included scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals (Larson and Chung 2012) and written in English (Morrison et al. 2012). The selection was further limited to subject areas (Scopus) and groups of subject categories (WoS) most appropriate for studies in economics applied to agriculture and agri-food systems. The studies identified after applying the automatic filters in both databases (3051 in total) were imported into excel for the elimination of duplicates (n = 1168).

Table 2 Identification criteria

In the following screening stage, a total of 1883 records were reviewed by two of the authors. The screening process was performed by reading the article title, abstract, and keywords, and according to two criteria: research topic and type of article. As for the first criterion, only articles focused on agroecology as core field of study and performing an empirical analysis focused on the socio-economic issues were included in the review (Fresco et al. 2021). In detail, the articles excluded were (1) articles that just cited the words agroecology or agroecological but they were not focused on analysing the agroecological approach, (2) articles that were only tangentially about the agroecological approach, and (3) articles that were focused on the agroecological approach but they did not investigate any economic issues. When we were unable to deduce this information from the title or abstract, we included the paper for further examination via full-text reading. As for the second criterion, we choose to eliminate the reviews (n = 203) from our database after ascertaining that their scope was different by our review objective. At the end of the screening stage, 248 articles were recorded.

At the end of the eligibility stage, based on full-text reading, a total of 183 articles were eventually incorporated in the review and constituted the body of literature for analysis. The eligibility assessment was based on criteria reported in Table 3.

Table 3 Eligibility criteria applied through the full-text reading

In the fourth stage, a qualitative analysis was used to categorise iteratively (at posteriori) the reviewed studies. We identified first- and second-level categories according to the general and specific objectives of the documents. The next section provides a detailed description of the analysed literature, highlighting the main results achieved.


The 183 articles selected are indexed both in Scopus and WoS databases. According to Scopus classification of journals, they pertained to a broad range of subject areas, which highlight the multidisciplinary nature of this strain of literature (Fig. 2). The articles have been published in a total of 84 academic journals, the top ten by number of articles published being: Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (28), Agricultural Systems (11), Sustainability (9), Agronomy for Sustainable Development (8), Ecological Economics (7), Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems (7), International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability (7), Journal of Peasant Studies (7), Geoforum (4), and Journal of Rural Studies (4). With reference to the years of publication, we observed an increasing trend during the considered period (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Number of documents by subject area (Scopus database). *Other subject areas: Engineering; Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology; Business, Management and Accounting; Computer Science; Earth and Planetary Sciences; Multidisciplinary; Chemical Engineering; Mathematics; Medicine; Nursing; Veterinary

Fig. 3
figure 3

Number of documents per topic published over the period 2013–2023. Note that the documents were retrieved in January 2023

The analysis of selected articles, based on full-text reading, allowed the identification of 7 first-level categories (research topics) according to their general objective, and 21 second-level categories (research sub-topics) according to their specific objectives (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Conceptual map of selected articles according to first-level (topics) and second-level categories (sub-topics)

Also, the analysis allowed the identification of the country or the countries where each empirical study was performed. We found that the geographical distribution of the empirical studies is quite unbalanced among countries pertaining to Global North and Global South (Kowalski 2020), and even more unbalanced when looking to some topics (Table 4). Specifically, topics related to agroecological transition and assessment of production systems are rather balanced. Food security and food sovereignty, market studies, political dimension, and rural and urban development studies are prevalent in the Global South, whereas only the research and education agenda has received more attention in the Global North. However, looking at countries level, most of the empirical studies were carried out in the Brazilian and French contexts (Fig. 5a). Indeed, in the latter countries agroecology was officially recognised through the incorporation of agroecological principles into national policies (Wezel and David 2020). While looking at geographical distribution of documents by country of authors’ affiliation, we found that most of articles come from research institution of the Global North (Fig. 5b). The frequency analysis of articles keywords applied to all selected manuscripts highlighted the predominance of the following terms: agroecology, sustainability, food security, sustainable agriculture, agroecological practices. When looking at each topic the five most frequent articles keywords are quite different, with exception of the term agroecology that is always the most frequent (Fig. 6).

Table 4 Number of articles per topic/sub-topic, number of theoretical articles, and number of empirical articles by geographical distribution of empirical studies
Fig. 5
figure 5

Geographical distribution of empirical studies by country (a) and geographical distribution of documents based on country’s affiliation of authors (b)

Fig. 6
figure 6

Word cloud showing the relative importance of articles keywords listed in all selected articles with a minimum of two occurrences. Listed keywords show the five most important articles keywords in all studies and the five most important in studies of each topic measured by the relative frequency (F) of their occurrence

In the following subsections each topic and the related subtopics will be presented, seeking to highlight the main results achieved.

Agroecological transition

The topic named agroecological transition (AET) includes 38 papers dealing with the process of moving towards an agroecological food system. This corpus of studies is mainly focused on how to foster or broaden the adoption of agroecological practices. The analyses mostly involve smallholder and family farmers. Although many papers explore concurrently various intertwined themes, reflecting the multidimensional nature of transition processes, they were divided into three major sub-topics.

Transition dynamics and trajectories

The works under this sub-topic (n = 14) aim to gain deep insights about the conditions that make transition processes happen, and the distinct pathways along which they may progress.

A few studies focus on transition to agroecological management at farm level, assessing the degree of farms’ AET, or providing empirical evidence on the economic effects of transitioning. Overall, it has been found that within the European Union less than 3% of farms can be considered fully agroecological, while about 25% of them can be recognised as proto-ecological for using little external inputs (Matthews 2022). However, alternative models such as multifunctional farms can unconsciously operate according to agroecological principles and thus can be considered as precursory in AET, as investigated in the Italian context integrating qualitative case study analysis and quantitative estimation of parameters based on evaluation criteria (Gargano et al. 2021). Family farms can face high costs at the beginning of the transition, but gradually experiment increased and more stable net income, and better living conditions in the medium-long term, as co-assessed with Cuban farmers with participatory methods (Lucantoni 2020). Qualitative studies grounded on interviews and participant observation point out that farmers can implement the transition process differently and at varying speeds, depending on factors such as land tenure status, available economic capital, and production scale. As evidenced for horticultural family farms in Argentina, AET typically entails a reconfiguration of production practices in the beginning and later involves innovations in marketing and sales, with a great impact on the logistic and work organisation (Parodi 2018). Diverse farm typologies can be involved differently within transition processes. Basing on quantitative methods such as multiple correspondence and cluster analysis, farm typologies can be classified according to factors such as production system diversification, family workforce availability, membership to associations, access to technical assistance services, adoption of organic method, water management, and agricultural waste recycling practices (Escobar et al. 2019).

Most of the studies delve with systemic changes occurring across entire agri-food systems, often emphasising that local context plays a major role in understanding the specificity of AET trajectories. For instance, considering dairy farms from two very different agropastoral areas, Vidal et al. (2020) found that AET trajectories in France are mainly structured around organic farming label, food safety, and quality challenges, with the consumer demand playing a key driving role; instead, in Burkina Faso they are more guided by food security issues related to the need to diversify food commodities. Other studies employ the multi-level perspective (MLP) approach to understand transition processes. Among them, analysing the fresh vegetable production system in Belgium, Dumont et al. (2020) illustrate the coexistence between different socio-technical configurations of agroecological systems, one of which was able to scale from the niche to the regime level by modifying some technical and marketing practices, and interacting with the organic and conventional systems. Instead, Ryschawy et al. (2021) individuate the bottom-up processes and the macro-economic and institutional dynamics, through which an agroecological crop–livestock system (integrated sheep-vineyard) can emerge to disrupt the conventional agricultural regime in California.

Andrieu et al. (2022) apply methods of participatory scenario development and visioning to identify the key changes needed for an AET in Guadeloupe, integrating three analytical levels (farming, socio-technical, and socio-ecological systems) and considering the farms’ position along an AET gradient. In general, farmers envision transition as a gradual and multiscale process, rather than a disruptive change. However, according to Plumecocq et al. (2018) it is precisely the intensity of change, from incremental to radical, that generates transition types and pathways. Basing on institutional analysis, the authors argue that the models that are more aligned with the values of the dominant regime entail minor and incremental adjustments to the conventional system, often involving mainly the technological sphere. Alternative models shaped by radically different values require disruptive changes also in the organisational and institutional domains, such as markets, standardisation forms, norms, and social relationships. Moreover, AET needs a radical change of social relations in agricultural production towards a greater autonomy of farmers, as van der Ploeg (2020) highlights through the case study of a farmers’ cooperative in the Netherlands.

Whitin the social actors promoting agroecology, the crucial role of grassroot peasant movements with significant organisational capacity is acknowledged, while governments have often failed to incorporate into their agenda the forging of a new food system (Intriago et al. 2017). According to Dorin (2022) it makes an exception the case of the South Indian State of Andhra Pradesh, where a strong engagement at political level may lead to the first large-scale AET in the world, following the development of an existing alternative niche (i.e. Zero Budget Natural Farming).

Finally, territorialisation and massification of agroecology are crucial to reach an adequate scale to enable a systemic transition. In particular, McGreevy et al. (2021) evidence the role of agroecological farms as lighthouses able to facilitate and amplify the uptake of agroecological practices in rural communities.

Drivers and barriers

The studies under the second sub-topic (n = 16) deal with the factors that may hinder (barriers) or facilitate (drivers) the transition towards agroecological food systems within diverse territorial contexts. Methodological frameworks are mainly based on case studies, qualitative analysis of interviews or focus groups, sometimes combined with quantitative statistical analysis. Some factors are strictly dependent on farm management, while others are related to the broader socio-political system, organisational forms and market structures in which farmers operate. The combination of distinctive internal and external factors on each farm can be relatively unique, making the transition process inhomogeneous (Dupré et al. 2017).

At farm level, several factors can influence the implementation of agroecological practices, including the economic benefits outweigh the costs, the availability of substantial resources such as capital and labour, the amount of subsidies and the level of farmer education. In detail, the main barriers reported are: the preference of smallholders for industrial farming (Castellanos-Navarrete and Jansen 2018); the knowledge gap and the unavailability of agroecological inputs (Boulestreau et al. 2021); the need to acquire manifold knowledge and skills, and the heavy administrative burden to comply with more regulations when the activities are diversified (Aare et al. 2021); the lack of appropriate training, technical support and advisory service (Punzano et al. 2021); and the expensive cost of agroecological inputs, the time-consuming complexity of their management or the lack of some needed machineries (Surchat et al. 2021). Farm-work organisation and working conditions can influence the uptake of agroecological practices, especially those related to crop–livestock integration, which requires more intense and skilled labour compared to specialised systems (Fanchone et al. 2022). Limited access to water and shortages of land, labour, and money have been found as main hindering factors in Ethiopia (Mekuria et al. 2022). Constraints at farm level can be influenced by external factors, such as land tenure and market incentives. However, such constraints could be tackled through collective strategies like pooling of resources, labour, and land (Isgren 2016). Cooperative farmers trying to operationalise agroecology within collective projects can face further challenges: as for a Belgian case study, they lack an encoded organisational model and often proceed by trial and error; moreover, multiple aspirations and institutional logics can create internal tensions (Plateau et al. 2021).

The external barriers at the broader socio-technical level inhibit systemic changes of the conventional agri-food model. The main ones identified are: a technological lock-in of specialised agri-food systems around the few major cultivated crops, hindering diversification pathways (Revoyron et al. 2022); the conventionalisation of the organic regime (Boulestreau et al. 2021); unsupportive legislation that often fails in meeting the needs of diversified farms (Aare et al. 2021); the persistence of neoliberal approaches in the policy sphere; the low-cost and export-oriented strategies and corporate power exerted by oligopolies within the current industrial food system at the market level; productivist solutions prevailing in the technological domain; the industrial mode of thought in which the scientific culture is chiefly embedded (Iles 2021); and the lack of citizen awareness about ecological production at social level (Punzano et al. 2021). Moreover, the development of a well-functioning innovation system depends on existing actors, institutions, and infrastructure that are strongly aligned with the current agri-food regime, making it difficult to challenge (Vermunt et al. 2022).

Internal transition drivers due to farm management are related to farm characteristics and its environment, the labour force, and the farmer's environmental concerns (Dupré et al. 2017). Farmers with a better knowledge about agrochemicals and their effects on health, relying on different sources of information, show a higher intention to adopt agroecological practices (Punzano et al. 2021).

As for the external drivers, the literature points out the importance of: ensuring regulatory adjustments attentive to the structural conditions that favour diversified farming systems (Aare et al. 2021); obtaining social recognition for the farmer’s ecological work (Punzano et al. 2021); promoting consumer education through targeted public campaigns on sustainable diets; training the local extensions services staff (Surchat et al. 2021); facilitating access to agroecological inputs; building participatory agroecological knowledge; developing cultural and territorial vitality services bundles (Beudou et al. 2017); creating multi-stakeholder platforms; providing an enabling policy environment, able to value the public goods deriving from diversified farming; and creating favourable markets, such as alternative sale channels where farmers can have greater control on selling terms and prices, and establish reliable networks of customers (Iles 2021). As for the market drivers, it is suggested to capitalise on consumer willingness to pay a price premium for more ecological products or ensuring the internalisation of full social and environmental costs of conventional production, e.g. through market regulation or pricing mechanisms.

Farmers’ organisations can play a key intermediary role to facilitate both knowledge and adoption of agroecological innovations among farmers, thanks to many vertical and horizontal connections (Iyabano et al. 2022). External organisations, such as foreign NGOs and institutions, can also contribute to propel agroecological conversion in peripheral territories (Einbinder et al. 2019).

Factors affecting decision-making processes

These factors can be understood as a particular category of internal drivers, specifically related to farmers’ choices, motivations, and behaviours laying behind the adoption of agroecological practices. The studies (n = 8) are mainly based on in-depth qualitative interviews aimed to capture farmers’ perception of their system of practices, sometimes combined with quantitative approaches.

Intrinsic motivations, based on self-determination and congruency with personal values, and extrinsic motivations, linked to site-specific conditions and needs, seem to be more relevant than external stimulus (rules or economic incentives), as Garini et al. (2017) evidence for Italian winegrowers by implementing a cognitive mapping approach. Similarly, employing discrete choice experiment to analyse socio-economic trade-offs faced by French farmers in AET, Bjørnåvold et al. (2022) argue that their behaviour could be more influenced by peers’ perception and support than by outside pushes. De La Cruz and Dessein (2021) use the lens of institutional bricolage to identify the prevailing powerplay mechanisms influencing individual decisions to adopt agroecological practices in Peruvian rural villages: (1) copying and learning on transition feasibility from wealthier farmers; (2) the manageability of the risks. Antonio et al. (2019) observes that the main motivations beyond production changes among Brazilian family farmers are: (1) good performance, (2) easy cultivation and adaptability, and (3) the need of adapting to climate change.

Other studies employ descriptive and inferential statistical analysis to identify explanatory variables associated with decisional patterns. Basing on data surveyed from Cameroonian smallholder farmers, Epule and Bryant (2017) find that the decision to adopt agroecological practices is conditioned by socio-demographic characteristics (higher propensity is associated with fewer years of experience, higher level of income, and more family members living and working on farm), while Awazi et al. (2021) show a positive causal relationship with socio-economic and institutional attributes (age of household head, access to information, access to credit and degree of vulnerability). Segnon et al. (2015) show that the adoption of diversified farming systems in Benin vary according to geographical and ecological conditions, sociolinguistic affiliation, and socio-economic factors. Besides, farmers’ ecological knowledge emerges as a crucial driver for adopting more environmental-friendly models and for choosing specific management options (e.g. crop–tree–livestock VS agroforestry). Using an Extended Theory of Planned Behaviour Model, also Tama et al. (2021) found that knowledge exerts the greatest influence on farmers’ intention towards agroecology in Bangladesh.

Assessment of production systems

These studies (n = 54) focus on the assessment of production systems in terms of sustainability performance of the agroecological paradigm at various scales of analysis, i.e. from plot or farm scale to territorial scale. They evaluate, through the use of a variety of indicators, how the adoption of different agroecological practices affects some or all of the environmental, social, and economic domains. In particular, some articles cover sub-topics concerning the diversification of faming systems (e.g. crop–livestock integration, crop diversification). Few studies perform an analysis of agroecology in terms of transitioning to organic farming, or the impact of adopting several others agroecological practices in conventional farms (e.g. biocontrol, organic fertilisation, use of biostimulants), while others perform a comparison between conventional farming vs. agroecological farming. Finally, other studies focus on the impacts of AET at territorial scale.

Crop diversification

Crop diversification is the farming strategy based on spatial and temporal diversification of cropping systems. There are several options to diversify cropping systems, i.e. crop rotations, intercropping and cover crops. This strain of literature (n = 7 studies) evaluates the impact of crop diversification on sustainability performance of agricultural production systems. The assessment considers the economic, environmental and social dimensions by using several approaches, such as multicriteria analysis, sustainability indicators analysis, dynamic model of the sequence of agricultural productions and Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agricultural Systems (SAFA).

All the authors found that crop diversification positively impacts environmental sustainability (Puech et al. 2021; Rodriguez et al. 2021; Alletto et al. 2022), i.e. reducing the dependence on synthetic inputs (Bonnet et al. 2021). However, they found contradictory results regarding the impact of diversification on social and economic dimensions. Some authors found that crop diversification improves the social sustainability of farming systems (Puech et al. 2021; Alletto et al. 2022), while Rodriguez et al. (2021) found that farmers still face many challenges in the social domain (e.g. contribution to employment, work condition, and farmers’ quality of life). As regards the economic sphere, some authors found that diversification strategies might reduce profitability (Puech et al. 2021; Rodriguez et al. 2021; Bonnet et al. 2021). Conversely, Islam et al. (2021) found that the intercropping strategy might have the potential to be used to increase cropping intensity, overall yield, and earnings per unit area. Moreover, Alletto et al. (2022) highlight that economic performance was very variable according to the cases analysed, and Durand et al. (2017) showed that a farm with increased crop diversity lowers the cost of soil restoration. Nevertheless, their economic analysis reveals that farmers might struggle to cover the costs of AET. Finally, Nilsson et al. (2022) found that functional crop diversity increases farm economic performance and input self-sufficiency, whereas diversification based on genetically linked crops has the opposite effect.

Crop–livestock integration

These studies (n = 10) investigate whether the integration of crop and livestock at farm or territorial scale could be a viable farming strategy, according to agroecological principles. They are primarily based on simulations of crop–livestock integration scenarios. A variety of methodological approaches are used, including the Orfee model, an agent-based integrated modelling framework, and participatory approaches for co-designing the farming systems. Among these studies, Pissonnier et al. (2019) evaluated the long-term effects of integrating animals into the production system of farms specialised in perennial crops. They found a reduction in the use of pesticides, even if in some scenarios this reduction is modest. However, the additional costs associated with livestock are not entirely offset by the increase in revenue, nor by the benefits associated with the elimination of chemical weeding and orchard health protection. Moreover, Alexandre et al. (2021) explored the impact of livestock integration in agroforestry production, discovering that making this connection in a planned and rational manner increases yields while also benefiting the environment. Additionally, a study proposed by Bonaudo et al. (2014) investigated two alternative farming systems integrating crops and livestock. The first case shows how combining moderate de-intensification with increased crop–livestock integration can significantly reduce external inputs (e.g. fertilisers, pesticides, feed) through improved recycling of crop and livestock by-products (e.g. straw, manure). This strategy reduces environmental externalities while causing a limited production loss. The second case demonstrates how a combination of moderate intensification and increased crop–livestock integration might reduce the usage of chemical inputs (herbicides and fertilisers), resulting in increased output while mitigating environmental impacts. Moreover, Mosnier et al. (2017, 2022) compared mixed systems to their specialised equivalents, in order to determine which one is more sustainable. Their findings show that mixed farms compared to specialised farms produce greater net revenue and have lower overall production costs. However, the profitability and revenue variability of mixed farms do not outperform the top performing specialised farms. Moreover, Castelo Branco Brasileiro-Assing et al. (2021) compared sustainability performances of farmers who adopted the agroecological practice named Management Intensive Grazing (MIG) with those who did not apply this practice. Findings highlight that the adoption of MIG increases profitability and farm income. Furthermore, Mugnier et al. (2020) focused on mixed-species livestock farming systems finding that, due to the seasonality and the type of products, mixing species guarantees revenues and makes them more stable throughout the years. Likewise, considering animals' complementary feed needs and behaviour, there are additional benefits, including increased consumption of on-farm forage and better utilisation of grassland resources. Finally, some studies investigated the possibility of crop–livestock integration at the territorial level when implementation at farm level was not possible. In particular, these studies focused on developing cooperation between producers specialised in arable crops and producers specialised in animal husbandry. Authors found that this might be a solution to overcome the issues related to work organisation (Ryschawy et al. 2017), rising workloads, logistical challenges, and social problems (Ryschawy et al. 2019). They found that farming systems might potentially become less vulnerable, while becoming more sustainable (Catarino et al. 2021) also increasing gross margins (Ryschawy et al. 2019).

Organic farming practices

The present topic includes those studies (n = 5) that have examined the sustainability performance of organic farms and their role in fostering AET. Agroecology is increasingly understood to be an evolution of organic farming, especially regarding crop management. The empirical studies are based on a variety of indicators, i.e. gross margin and return on investment, and employed several methods such as cluster analysis, life cycle assessment (LCA), endogenous switching regression model, and production function framework. Some studies focus on the factors that might stimulate farmers to adopt agroecological practices in their organic farms. Kleemann and Abdulai (2013) found a higher propensity to adopt agroecological practices in the presence of organic certification. Moreover, Pépin et al. (2021) identified some differences between “agroecological” organic farms and “conventionalised” organic farms that are based on input substitution. They discovered that farms created as organic tend to be more agroecological than farms converted from conventional farming. Furthermore, while some long supply chains exhibit good agroecological performances, the best ones are associated with short supply chains. Likewise, other authors investigated how agroecological organic farming affects farm economic and environmental outcomes. According to Montalba et al. (2019), agroecological organic farming has the least negative environmental effects on freshwater eutrophication, acidification, and global warming when compared to conventional and conventional organic farming. Additionally, agroecological farms achieve the highest yields and the lowest costs of production. Similarly, other researchers found that agroecological organic farming has more advantageous economic outcomes in terms of return on investment (Kleemann and Abdulai 2013) and gross margins (Mohamad et al. 2018; Schader et al. 2021).

Others agroecological farming practices

These studies (n = 7) concern the assessment of some other agroecological practices that differ from those previously illustrated. Different methodologies have been employed by the authors, such as sustainability indicators analysis, cost–benefit ratio analysis, spatial diffusion model, and Characterization of Agroecological Transition (CAET). Some authors looked at the impact of incorporating biocontrol practices into farming pest management. They discovered that using natural methods based on plant extracts to control and manage crop pests and diseases covers all ten elements of agroecology and does not significantly increase farmer costs (Belmain et al. 2022). Another study found that biocontrol improves profit while reducing pesticide use (Martinet and Roques 2022). Other authors investigated the effect of using organic fertilisers instead of chemical ones, demonstrating that the substitution enhances economic performance by increasing profitability (Cabanillas et al. 2017; Kocira et al. 2020; Escobar Cazal et al. 2021). Additionally, De Leijster et al. (2020) analysed the economic performances of introducing three different agroecological practices: no-tillage, green manure, and compost. The authors found that the economic benefits depend on the practice adopted. In particular, the adoption of compost increases revenue, while no-tillage and green manure reduce economic outcomes. Finally, Ameur et al. (2020) investigated the effect of several agroecological practices, finding that their introduction enhances land use and input efficiency, and reduces exposure to market risks and production costs.

Conventional versus agroecological farming

These studies (n = 10) aim to compare agroecological farming systems with conventional ones. As for conventional farming systems is meant a farming system which is not based on agroecological principles (generally called industrial farming system or based on intensive use of fossil fuel and chemicals). The articles assess the sustainability performances applying different methodologies. Some researches are mainly based on comparing several indicators, i.e. income, resilience, energy return on investment. Other researches used Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems (SAFA) and multitemporal economic analysis, such as budget, probabilistic cash flow, and cost–benefit analyses. All the studies agreed that agroecological production systems have a positive impact on environmental sustainability, impacting several aspects such as the maintenance of scenic landscapes, biodiversity, input usage (e.g. reducing pesticides, fossil fuels, and energy), and water and soil quality (Balamatti and Uphoff 2017; Aparicio et al. 2018; van der Ploeg et al. 2019; Landert et al. 2020; Pronti and Coccia 2020a, b; Gil et al. 2022). Moreover, they found that agroecological practices positively influence the social domain by increasing the number of workers involved in the production process (van der Ploeg et al. 2019; Gil et al. 2022), the well-being of farmers and employers (Soldi et al. 2019; Landert et al. 2020) and food security (Pronti and Coccia 2020a, b). However, the findings about the economic impact are divergent. Some authors found that the introduction of agroecological principles into farm management increases incomes (van der Ploeg et al. 2019), profitability (Balamatti and Uphoff 2017; Aparicio et al. 2018), income stability and economic resilience (Soldi et al. 2019; Pronti and Coccia 2020a, b). Moreover, (Lalani et al. 2017) found that there are short-term benefits, but they mostly depend on the crop mix and the labour opportunity cost. Additionally, (Pronti and Coccia 2020a, b) found that even if agroecological farms yields are lower, economic results in terms of income stability are higher than those of conventional farms. Finally, other studies highlighted that there are no significant differences in revenue between the farming systems under investigation (Capellesso et al. 2016). However, according to Gil et al. (2022) although if there are similar financial returns among production systems, the flow of value-added is distributed more equally among actors of the agroecological supply chain than in the conventional ones.

Impacts of agroecology at territorial scale

This sub-topic includes articles (n = 15) that approached the impact of AET beyond the farm scale, looking at the territorial scale. This sub-topic differs from the others because many aspects are far beyond the control of the individual farm, taking into consideration the interactions of farms with the wider food system to fully assess the effects on sustainability performances (Resare Sahlin et al. 2022). Therefore, authors employed novel methodology to evaluate the effect of adopting agroecological practices on farming sustainability at territorial scale. This is because numerous tools for assessing sustainability performance of the agricultural systems are not adequate to measure the effect of agroecological practices (Trabelsi et al. 2016). Therefore, some authors applied a Framework for the Evaluation of Management Systems incorporating Sustainability Indicators called MESMIS to evaluate the sustainability of the agroecosystems. In particular, Calderón et al. (2018) found that agroecological farms enable increased resilience to environmental and economic factors, the latter because they can offer a wider range of products in local markets. Furthermore, Domínguez-Hernández et al. (2022) found that agroecological fertilisation management improves the sustainability and overall resilience of the systems, having a favourable impact on production, soil health, and a favourable benefit–cost ratio. Moreover, Volkmer and Pedrozo (2019) adapt the 3D sustainability model for analysing agroecological farms located near or within protected areas considering not only environmental, social, and economic sustainability, but also system carrying capacity. In addition, Padró and Tello (2022) developed the Sustainable Agroecological Farm Reproductive Analysis (SAFRA) to assess the most sustainable agroecological scenarios that could be implemented. The authors observed that the best possible scenario would be the intermediate one between that in which food is purchased locally, and that in which trade specialisation allows to satisfy the food supply. Finally, a new method named as Tool for Agroecology Performance Evaluation (TAPE) was introduced by Mottet et al. (2020). It is a multi-step methodology that can be used to evaluate economic, social, and environmental performance in relation to ten elements of agroecology. This methodology has been applied by several authors, which found different agroecological performances. Lucantoni et al. (2023) found that agroecological farming performs better in economic terms and produces higher income, while using less external and industrial inputs than conventional systems. Additionally, more advanced agroecological farms use less agrochemicals, have greater soil health, higher levels of agrobiodiversity, and more natural vegetation and pollinators on their property. All these factors all contribute to the environmental dimension of sustainability. Comparable trends are seen in the social aspect of sustainability: households with advanced agroecological practices have more food security and dietary diversity. Furthermore, there is a clear and solid connection between youth empowerment and the agroecological transition. Additionally, agroecological farms are able to maintain a larger population in rural areas and employ a larger share of the family directly on the farm, including women and young people. Similarly, Barrios Latorre et al. (2023) found that agroecological practices improve performance as regards social and environmental aspects. Ultimately, the income criterion was deemed unsustainable, as the majority of farmers reported a decrease in their income over time, although they did not think that it differed significantly from regional values. Lastly, Passaro and Randelli (2022) emphasised the importance of collaboration in enhancing agroecological performances, by highlighting the function of biodistricts as groups of actors who share similar social and human values and foster an atmosphere favourable to knowledge creation and exchange. Finally, several other studies applied heterogeneous methodology based on different indicators (i.e. net revenues, gross margin, and holistic risk index) to evaluate the economic aspects of agroecological farming systems. The authors found that the adoption of agroecological practices positively impact the resilience (Auffhammer and Carleton 2018; Machado-Vargas et al. 2018), and profitability (Auffhammer and Carleton 2018; Rakotovao et al. 2021; Laske 2022). On the contrary, Stratton et al. (2021) found that early-stage farmers face lower incomes and challenging working conditions, but experienced agroecological smallholders with strong peer support and access to diverse markets have higher net household incomes and improved work quality.

Food security and food sovereignty

This topic includes seven articles that explore, through different approaches, the relationship between agroecology and the issues of food security and food sovereignty. Most of these studies concern countries from the Global South.

Agroecology and food security

These studies (n = 4) specifically analyse how, and to what extent, agroecology may contribute to reach food security and nutrition goals. In particular, van Zutphen et al. (2022) theoretically identify the multiple pathways through which agroecology can impact on food security by analysing in-depth the 13 FAO agroecological principles which have been recognised as an actionable framework to catalyse agri-food system transformations, and to improve the likelihood of meeting global nutrition needs. The other three studies, instead, provide empirical assessments of the postulated linkage between agroecology and nutrition outcomes, by considering specific case studies in different countries, specifically Ecuador (Deaconu et al. 2021), Malawi (Nyantakyi-Frimpong et al. 2016) and Guatemala (Rice et al. 2023). These studies use mixed methods of analysis (key informant interviews, questionnaire surveys, focus group discussions) to demonstrate that peasant communities adopting agroecological practices have more adequate nutrient intake and dietary diversity, mainly due to a wider diversification of food production. In particular, Rice et al. (2023) also emphasise the key role of social networks and mutual solidarity within agroecological peasant communities in supporting more equal access to food.

Agroecology and food sovereignty

These studies (n = 3) provide empirical evidence on how agroecology may contribute to reaching food sovereignty. In particular, Hernández et al. (2017) measure a set of food sovereignty indicators on a sample of peasant families in Mexico, and demonstrate that the adoption of agroecological practices contribute to build sustainable agri-food systems strongly rooted in local knowledge, culture, and food production and consumption practices, adequately meeting the nutrition needs of local communities. On the other hand, Calvário (2017) and Diaz and Hunsberger (2018) used qualitative research methods to investigate how food sovereignty is understood, and how it can be achieved by farmers participating in agroecological organisations in Puerto Rico and Spain. Results show that food sovereignty is essentially understood as the right of self-determination and, in particular, the right to decide autonomously how to ensure adequate food access for local communities. In particular, the authors emphasise the strategic importance of AET as a key process for reaching food sovereignty through supporting ideological struggles, helping build alliances and pushing towards collective mobilisation in order to break down social and political barriers that hinder the transition towards food sovereignty.

Market studies

This topic includes 21 articles which investigate market issues strictly related to the transition process towards agroecological food systems. Most of these studies have been carried out in the Global South.

The role of consumer

These studies (n = 4) highlight that the transition process towards agroecological food systems needs to shift from farm-level solutions to the interactions within the entire value chain, from production to consumption. Following a demand-driven approach and using econometric analysis of consumer’ survey data, two studies, conducted in Mexico (Revollo-Fernández 2016) and Brazil (de Araújo and Marjotta-Maistro 2023), demonstrate that agroecology is not necessarily a type of subsistence farming, because there is a relevant segment of consumers strongly interested in purchasing agroecological food products, also by paying a premium price. The other studies, instead, emphasise the importance of the active role of consumers in planning and managing the overall agroecological food circuits, from production to consumption, as a powerful force for driving the transition process. In particular, Mehrabi et al. (2022) conducted a theoretical analysis based on the multi-level perspective (MLP) approach to investigate how consumers/citizens may be more actively involved in AET, by also identifying the business models with higher degrees of consumers/citizens engagement such as collective food buying groups, participatory guarantee systems, crowd farming, self-harvested gardens and community supported agriculture. Instead, Castilla Carrascal (2021) used ethnographic methods (participant observation, in-depth interviews) to analyse an exemplary case of a pioneer collective food buying group in Ecuador, later organised as a solidarity economic circuit, that was successful in reconnecting indigenous-peasant practices to the entire local communities, by fostering agroecological food production and consumption as a right, not a privilege.

The role of labelling

These studies (n = 3) analyse the effectiveness of this specific market tool for supporting and fostering AET. In particular, Swagemakers et al. (2021) used a case study approach and mixed qualitative research methods to investigate the role of green labels in different European countries, and show that, despite these labels effectively communicate to consumers some readjustments to sustainability, a more profound transition to agroecology needs to design and implement what is really sustainable at local level. On the other hand, Arroyo-Lambaer et al. (2022) conducted a qualitative study using cognitive mapping in Mexico to investigate the points of view of producers about the introduction of a specific label to differentiate food products coming from a local agroecological system. Results show that producers perceive some relevant constraints in implementing the proposed green label, in particular due to the high costs of certification. Finally, Hirata et al. (2019) used mixed qualitative methods to analyse a case study of Participatory Guarantee System in Brazil, and highlight that this specific certification system, based on the assessment of organic compliance combined with technical assistance for the adoption of agroecological practices, has greatly contributed to strengthening agroecology at local level.

The role of alternative food networks

These studies (n = 14) provide empirical assessment on how, and to what extent, Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) may contribute to the transition towards agroecological food systems. AFNs are specific organisations based on the partnership and social cooperation between consumers and small-scale farmers at local level, with the aim to re-connect consumption and production by using short distribution channels such as farmers’ markets, collective points of sale, box schemes, farm shops, and other forms of direct selling. In particular, three studies (Nigh and González Cabañas 2015; Darolt et al. 2016; Muñoz et al. 2021) used mixed qualitative research methods to investigate and compare different experiences of AFNs in both the contexts of North and South of the world. These studies emphasise the key role of AFNs as the more suitable options for the growth of agroecology, but they also identify some relevant weaknesses of these market organisations, mainly related to their limited dimensional scale. Other studies (Espelt et al. 2019; Espelt 2020; Cechin et al. 2021; Levidow et al. 2022; Moreira 2022) focus on the most advanced model of AFNs, namely Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which is a long-term institutional arrangement between local consumers and small farmers who agree in advance what, how much, and how to produce, as well as the prices to be applied for product exchange. By using a case study approach with both qualitative and quantitative methods of analysis, these studies investigate the functioning of different CSAs in various countries (Brazil, Portugal, Spain), concluding that they are capable to strongly facilitate the adoption and spreading of agroecological practices, even though there are some limitations mainly related to the lack of professional management. Finally, the remaining studies investigate farmers’ markets, which represent the most common circuit for the distribution of agroecological food products worldwide (Chaparro-Africano and Calle Collado 2017; Chaparro-Africano 2019; Santos et al. 2014; Perez-Castillo 2021; Gütschow and Feola 2022; Little and Sylvester 2022). These studies also used a case study approach with both qualitative and quantitative methods of analysis to highlight that farmers’ markets are not only organised spaces where producers and consumers exchange agroecological food products and share utilitarian benefits, but they are also spaces for establishing and strengthening social relationships (both farmer-to-consumer and farmer-to-farmer) which are essential for spreading agroecological practices.

Political dimension

According to Wezel et al. (2009) agroecology embraces three dimensions: science, practice and social movement. In the latter dimension falls the political dimension of agroecology dealing with systems of governance, the associated institutions and consequent role of policies. The literature falling under this topic (n = 40) comes mainly from emerging economies of the Global South, with a prevalence from Latin America. Only a few studies concern United States of America (USA) and European Union (EU) countries. Largely, case study approaches and qualitative surveying methods are common methodologies used to report real experiences, to outline policy design and to assess impacts of ongoing agri-food transformations towards agroecology. According to the specific objectives explored, the studies included in this topic were grouped into four sub-topics.

Food politics

The studies (n = 9) encompasses food policy, legislation and institutions to food contentions and movements. Agroecology as a social movement draws from agrarian social thought focused primarily on campesino struggles over land. The Via Campesina has been among the first grassroot actions undertaken in Latin America. Acevedo-Osorio and Chohan (2020) report the experience of Peasant Reserve Zones as a legal tool for territorial ordering, created in 1994 in Colombia, to guarantee campesino access to land and to stop agribusiness land concentration. Peasant-led agricultural cooperative formation of Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra and its political effects in the established agrarian reform settlements in Brazil is analysed in Robles (2019).

Agroecology as a social movement aims at achieving food sovereignty. To gain this objective is crucial rethinking the current industrial food system, i.e. how we currently produce and distribute food. Harvie (2019) explores the case study of Fresno (California) by tracing early lessons from a new economic system, called The Food Commons, based on agroecological approach to local and regional food. The takeaways from The Food Commons are (1) the key role of local and regenerative capital formation, (2) the need of find, build and support human capital, and (3) to promote the ecological model of health.

The social and political claims of agroecology are further stressed by Giraldo and McCune (2019). Giraldo and Rosset (2022), using case study methodology of worldwide agroecology experiences, propose seven principles for a truly transformative agroecology. Along the same line is the politic thought that arises in the essay of Holt-Giménez and Altieri (2013). Indeed, agroecologists face important choices between reformism (the way agribusiness attempts to co-opt agroecology into the Green Revolution) and radical versions of agroecology within a politically transformative peasant movement for food sovereignty. Cadieux et al. (2019) using the frame of populism try to cross current right-wing populisms in USA over the food sovereignty, environment governance arguments of agroecology. The dichotomy of land sparing vs. land sharing is exemplified by de la Vega-Leinert and Clausing (2016) who argue on the technocratic vision of agriculture conservation. The paper concludes that technocratic sustainable intensification does not address unequal access to land natural resources, bypassing political issues of food autonomy. The autonomy concept within the agroecology scope is critically revised in a theoretical essay by Jansen et al. (2022).

Gender equality

Agroecology aims to build food systems based on social and gender equality of local communities (HLPE 2019). The studies under this sub-topic (n = 6) focus on the enhancement women’s empowerment (e.g. participation in farm decision-making and control over income). How the gender-specific aspects facilitate female participation and leadership in farming households and communities is reported in Benítez et al. (2020). For instance, Valencia et al. (2021) analyse how Brazil’s targeted public food procurement program influenced women’s empowerment in southern Brazil. Other experiences from Brazil (Feitosa and Yamaoka 2020; Ferreira et al. 2020) demonstrate that higher involvement of women as active agents of transformation results in strengthening social ties and in more participatory forms of governance. Ferreira et al. (2020) investigate the engagement of women in agroecological farms with animal husbandry in Minas Gerais State (Brazil), highlighting that women’s work is essential both in terms of quantity and variety of tasks performed. Both studies conclude that although agroecological principles explicitly include women’s emancipation and gender equality as essential conditions for the sustainability of agri-food systems, relevant inequalities continue to characterise the condition of women even in agroecological contexts. As a matter of fact, Larrauri et al. (2016) use an original indicators framework to perform a comparative analysis on the level of women’s equity and empowerment in two different cacao-producing peasant families in Ecuador, one adopting agroecological practices, and the other one adopting conventional practices. Results show that in both cases women were under situations of inequality with respect to their husbands, but agroecological farming guaranteed a higher level of inclusion compared to conventional farming. Mestmacher and Braun (2021) call for the feminist theory perspectives to create conditions for peasant organisation to bloom in Chile. According to their results, a policy in favour of agroecology would also have to take a feminist perspective.

Policy design and implementation

In the studies (n = 11), the adoption and diffusion of agroecological farming practices is the core of scientific literature from developed economies (USA and EU). By contrast, family farming and food security are the political priority given by Brazilian Government to AET.

One common point across literature is that the agroecological approach tries to replace farming management based on intensive use of fossil fuel and chemicals with knowledge-intensive practices. To this regard, measures such as training facilities and education initiatives for enabling an agroecologically skilled workforce have been proposed for AET in the USA (Carlisle et al. 2019) and in EU (Miller et al. 2022). Some papers concern the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). For instance, in De Sartre et al. (2019) a comparative analysis is carried out on two French policy measures, one inspired by ecosystem services as recognised under the second pillar of the CAP, and the other by agroecology principles based on local farmers’ networks and on social, economic, and ecological changes to farming practices. Gava et al. (2022) report findings from 15 European countries of CAP instruments to support AET in Europe. They used participatory research methods, based on the involvement of multiple actors, for exploring the potential of policy design to remove relevant barriers to AET. According to their findings, although agroecological farming practices already benefit from CAP support, the main challenge for agroecological food systems transition is strengthening the value chains. To this regard, Guareschi et al. (2023) outline strategies for the valorisation of organic products under the social and economic principle of agroecology, by analysing the Italian case of Parma organic district. Morris and Bucini (2016) propose to reshape the current agricultural policies and economic incentives in California (USA) applying an agroecological approach to spread adaptive farming practices to drought.

DeLonge et al. (2016) assessed the amount of federal funding in the USA since 2014 devoted to sustainable agriculture, including agroecology. The limited role of USA’s research founding program in agroecology is also argued by Miles et al. (2017), who outline how policy tools could be shifted to better support the development of more resilient and equitable food systems.

Strakos and Sanches (2017) discuss the role of public policy to promote agroecological practices for the progressive realisation of the human right to food by the Brazilian State. According to the authors, in a country with a major social inequality gap like Brazil, agroecology might represent a decisive strategy for social and economic inclusion of smallholder farmers. Diesel and Miná Dias (2016) carry out a critical analysis of the pros and cons of agroecological extension service PNATER (Rural Extension and Technical Assistance National Policy), implemented in Brazil between 2004 and 2015. Finally, policies addressing family farming in Brazil are analysed by Petersen and Silveira (2017). Major policy impact derives from land reform by which family farming achieved food autonomy, job, and income opportunity integrated into the local community.

Policy impact

This sub-topic embraces studies (n = 14) whose attempt is to assess impacts of past and ongoing policies. A first group of research attempts to evaluate the potential of agroecological practices for reducing the use of chemical inputs. Palmisano (2023) carries out an analysis of in-depth interviews and ethnographic notes on farming families that are constructing alternatives to pesticides in Latin America. Findings point to the existence of nuances between technical components, economic balance, and cultural elements that influence low-pesticide production strategy. Bernal Hoyo et al. (2022) explore through a simulation model the effect of agrochemical subsidies on the lives of farming families. Findings report that chemical inputs deployment leads to decrease long-term economic and ecological balance of farming, while agroecological practices reverse such impacts. According to Röös et al. (2022), who scenario analysis conducted with local food supply stakeholders, representing knowledge and views from 13 EU countries, agroecological practices can help to meet EU food system policy targets only in combination with healthy diets. Economic impact assessment of recent regulation in Mexico to ban GM maize along with glyphosate, while replacing it with agroecology maize production practices, has been carried out by Macall et al. 2022. The authors found that this political choice will result in higher domestic retail food prices for animal-based products.

A second group of research is framed into the sustainable development framework and offers lessons derived from several public policies worldwide. By analysing the public policies that Cuba enacted since the early 1990s for leading AET, Machado (2022) highlights the role that smallholders play in development discourse and practice. Moseley (2022) reports the personal experience of a cooperation project carried out in Burundi, a State with political instability and international market isolation. He shows how the “Crop Livestock Integration Project” succeeded in enhancing wealth and nutrition of smallholder farmers. Veluguri et al. (2021) conducted political analysis of a pioneering program for up-scaling agroecology practices in India. They revised the main policy measures and institutional changes over the last 20 years within the “Community Managed Natural Farming” program. Barbanti (2013) analyses the “Pilot Programme to Conserve the Brazilian Rainforests”, intended to promote sustainable development in the Amazon Forest area, with a key component being community-based agroecological and agroforestry production. Gómez-Ceballos et al. (2021) based on qualitative and quantitative research methods try to outline main factors that are limiting the impact of food policy in Ecuador. The main constraint is the lack of involvement of family farming within the local governance process. The agrarian reform carried out in Venezuela in 1998 and the role played by structures and incumbent state agents are discussed in Enríquez (2013).

A third group of research concerns policy experiences of public food procurement programs. Apart from Simón-Rojo et al. (2020) concerning a survey conducted in Spain, all other empirical studies analyse different food program procurement in Brazil. The “National School Feeding Program”, which offers both a structured market for small-scale family farmers and a price premium for certified (organic) agroecological production systems is revised in Guerra et al. (2017) and Valencia et al. (2019). Success of policy is largely driven by external network linkages, such as participation in farmers’ associations, cooperatives, and non-governmental agricultural extension programs that support agroecological practices. Through the perception of family farmers, an assessment of how food policies (e.g. Rural credit programs, Food Procurement Programme, Land regularisation) have impacted the food system in Brazil is carried out by Brandão et al. (2020).

Research and education agenda

The studies in this topic (n = 14) concern the research and education programs dealing with agroecology. Some articles focus on different innovative research approaches to grasp the complexity of the theme, including socio-economic aspects. Other articles focus on the potential socio-economic benefits of educational initiatives in producing and disseminating agroecological knowledge. Finally, other studies discuss the main knowledge gaps that scientists should address in agroecological research field.

New research approach

The papers in this sub-topic (n = 6) highlight the need for innovative research approaches to better study the implementation of agroecology in agri-food systems. The authors implemented several qualitative methodologies, including multi-actor evaluation, multivariate analysis, and SWOT analysis. In particular, some authors emphasise the need of a participatory approach in strengthening relationships among different actors (Guzmán et al. 2013), allowing researchers and students to have a more holistic view of the agri-food systems (Francis et al. 2013; Guzmán et al. 2013). Likewise, in contrast to top-down research approaches, an action-oriented approach may enable the creation and sharing of bottom-up knowledge (Francis et al. 2013; Gaba and Bretagnolle 2020). Moreover, Castro et al. (2019) highlight the relevance of adopting a multi-actor transdisciplinary research approach to favour collaboration and shared responsibility among all actors, both researchers and stakeholders of the agri-food system. Similarly, Reynolds et al. (2014) and Gaba and Bretagnolle (2020) suggest incorporating in the research approach the social economic and ecological dimensions. Finally, Silva and Tchamitchian (2018) emphasise the role of long-term studies and research infrastructure that are essential for managing agroecological issues.

Knowledge gaps in agricultural research and policy

Basing on these studies (n = 3), there are some major challenges related to agricultural research and policy that should be addressed to foster AET. For instance, van Hulst et al. (2020), by applying a novel mental modelling approach, found that farmers and scientists interpret the notion of agroecology differently. Specifically, farmers consider agroecology mainly as a set of farming practices that allow them to preserve the environment and satisfy the emerging needs of consumers. Differently, scientists deem agroecology as a discipline that studies ecological processes in agricultural systems.

Another crucial issue highlighted by DeLonge et al. 2020 refers to the public financing of research on agroecology. The content analysis applied by the authors shows that public funds in many cases have constraints in terms of duration and volume, which are not in line with the time required to investigate the AET. Finally, Andres and Bhullar (2016) emphasise the lack of economic methods for the assessment of ecosystem services generated by agricultural systems, in order to compare the true costs that farmers face for adopting more sustainable approaches, such as the agroecological one.

Educational initiatives

These studies (n = 5) analyse some educational initiatives, such as master’s and training courses, which are focused on the transfer and creation of knowledge in the agroecological field of study. Specifically, by applying a regression analysis Xu (2018) highlighted the key contribution of education programs in agricultural science for the growth of the agricultural economy and the formation of young talented researchers and technicians. Moreover, Wang et al. (2019) found that a system-oriented teaching model based on agroecology creates scientists and citizen aware of agroecology and able to collaborate with all food systems actors and stakeholders. Additionally, Hockin-Grant and Yasué (2017) with an analysis of variance (ANOVA) emphasise the role of educational programs in fostering the spread of agroecological practices. Other authors, by applying a social network analysis, investigated farmer-led educational initiatives, finding that farmers value social and autonomous learning more than institutional learning (Laforge and McLachlan 2018). Indeed, most agroecological knowledge is held by local farmers, basing on their on-field experiences. Such initiatives strengthen the relationships between actors and stakeholders, improve farmers' agroecological management skills and promote socio-economic restoration of rural areas as shown by the LEISA systematisation method applied by Chavez-Miguel et al. (2022).

Rural and urban development

In this strain of literature (n = 9), agroecology is considered as a foundational paradigm on which new models of rural and urban development can be established, with an emphasis on strengthening the urban–rural nexus and improving food system sustainability at local level. Also, the feasibility of incorporating agroecological principles into the territorial planning is investigated.


The papers under this sub-topic (n = 4) refer to the potential role that the agroecological approach can play for addressing territorial planning. Addinsall et al. (2015) developed a framework for sustainable rural development, the Agroecology and Sustainable Rural Livelihoods Framework (ASRLF), that allows a more holistic approach and increases the ability to meet the needs of local contexts. Other authors implemented a critical analysis of case studies. In particular, Levidow et al. (2021) highlight the role of local actors in influencing each other and in the setting of various initiatives in rural development that could potentially challenge the dominant agri-food system. In particular, they focus on the relationship between local actors by considering three case studies of agroecological agroforestry farms. Tornaghi and Dehaene (2020) deepen how the dynamics of urbanisation may affect AET, and call for a radical refoundation of the planning agenda and agency, currently perpetuating food-disabling mechanisms, around the prefigurative concept of “agroecological urbanism”. By exploring the case studies of London, Riga, Brussels, and Rosario, they suggest that such new urbanism model could build on urban–rural nutrients cycling, peri-urban land use, community food pedagogies, and empowering infrastructures. Finally, Bohn and Chu (2021) show how an attentive urban design drawing on landscape ecology can enable AET, by providing food productive spaces. Analysing the multiple services for nature and society provided by existing greenways in Shanghai and London, they discussed how traditional green infrastructures can be reoriented towards urban food system reshaping, under the design concept of Continuous Productive Urban Landscape (CPUL).

Urban agriculture

In this sub-topic some agroecological initiatives implemented in urban and peri-urban agriculture have been investigated (n = 5). These initiatives are useful to address the challenges related to food security, cities quality of life, resource depletion, with positive effects on the nexus between rural and urban environment. These studies are based on several methodologies, including classification and regression trees (CART) analysis, content analysis, inductive and deductive analysis and critical analysis of case studies. Moreover, a variety of sustainability dimensions, such as technical-productive, territorial, and socio-political aspects, were used to assess the performances of the agroecological development of the cities.

Urban agricultural practices can be in line with agroecological principles and contribute to the sustainability of cities by providing a range of social, economic, and environmental services to neighbouring communities (Alarcón-Rodríguez et al. 2019; Arnold 2022). Nagib and Nakamura (2020) emphasise the active role of urban agriculture initiatives in establishing new food paradigms by creating solidary economy networks and markets and stimulating the creation of supportive policies. Hammelman et al. (2022) found that devoting attention to the agricultural productivity of peri-urban areas has several benefits: increases the awareness about the value of agroecological products and the need to guarantee fair prices to producers, and encourages social inclusion and the emergence of social values. Bertran-Vilà et al. (2022) emphasise the relevance of social and cultural capital for peri-urban farmers in consolidating their economic-productive enterprises and establishing connections with city customers.


The literature review succeeded in replying to our research questions. In detail, the review contributes to map the existing literature on socio-economic issues of agroecology by highlighting (1) the most explored socio-economic dimensions, and (2) the results achieved by scholars. Besides, the findings acknowledge an overview of the main methodologies applied to investigate the different economic issues.

By applying the PRISMA-ScR methodology a total of 183 papers were identified. The analysis of the literature allowed us to recognise seven main research topics: (1) agroecological transition, (2) assessment of production systems, (3) food security and food sovereignty, (4) market studies, (5) political dimension, (6) research and education agenda, and (7) rural and urban development. However, it is worth noting that many of the selected articles were multifaceted, often concerning more than one topic or sub-topic. The final classification was drawn by identifying the most relevant contribution of each article, without considering eventual overlapping among topics or subtopics.

Our literature review covers most of the research fields in the agricultural economics domain as outlined by Fresco et al. (2021), ranging from land and farm level to the entire food chain, including the consumers and the environment. One issue that has been under-investigated in the reviewed literature refers to climate change. Agroecology is often acknowledged as an approach that might mitigate the negative effects of climate change by developing more resilient systems. However, empirical studies aimed to address the challenges associated with climate change are scant.

Regarding the methodological insights, our analysis revealed that qualitative approaches were the most employed research methods. Even when quantitative methods were used, the sample size was often small, undervaluing statistical representativeness. This aspect can affect the external validity of the results and limit their ability to be generalised to the entire reference population.

A key methodological issue emerging from the literature is the need for bottom-up approaches instead of the traditional top-down scientific methods. This means working closely with farming communities to understand their needs and concerns and implementing a collaborative research approach. By creating networks of stakeholders and promoting shared responsibility, a culture of cooperation can be fostered, leading to more effective and sustainable agricultural practices (Méndez et al. 2013; Gaba and Bretagnolle 2020). In addition, when it comes to analysing the complexity of agroecological systems, an approach based on direct and participant observation may be more effective than traditional theory-based approaches. Such an approach could better prepare researchers for the transdisciplinarity required for the study of agroecology. Also, multi-dimensional approaches should be preferred to gain a better understanding of the subject and to increase the relevance of outcomes. Another relevant methodological issue relates to the need of shifting from cross-sectional analysis to multi-temporal analysis, given that the impacts of AET should be looked over time. Finally, the level of analysis should be extended from the plot and farm scale to the territorial food system.

There are several research implications emerging from this literature review and they can be articulated for each topic identified (Table 5). Specifically, the literature on AET shows that systemic transition processes involve technological, organisational, societal, and institutional transformations. Besides, evidence-based insights suggest that AET requires a strong structural support, as well as much organisation. Despite the rise of an agroecological movement at global level, there is a wide recognition that transition dynamics, potential, barriers, and appropriate strategies are highly context specific. Thus, multiple transition pathways, rather than a unique uniform process, may take place even across a country. The adoption of specific agroecological practices and management strategies, the ways to adapt them, and the challenges for transitioning may vary from one farm to another. Because multiple transition pathways towards agroecology may result from the combination of elements from different sustainable models, policymaking and implementation process should be coherent with the value system that qualifies the agriculture models they aim to change or support. The prevalence of qualitative research is intrinsic to the aims and analytical frameworks of the studies dealing with transition processes. While providing thorough and rich insights, qualitative results are inevitability subject to authors’ interpretation, depend on informants’ involvement and perception and may present limitations when their representation is unbalanced. Besides, findings from the case study analysis are conditioned by the interplay of circumstantial factors, thus inferring generalisable evidence should be further corroborated by temporal and spatial comparison. A greater integration of qualitative and quantitative methods could generate more robust and complementary results.

Table 5 Future research avenues per topic analysed in the review

The studies on the assessment of food production systems highlighted that the diffusion of agroecological practices is strictly dependent on their economic viability and attractiveness to farmers. This stream of literature emphasises that the negative effect on productivity and profitability in the short-term can discourage farmers from beginning or continuing to change their production system. The challenge is to strike a balance between short-term economic and long-term social and environmental goals. To foster AET, the role of agricultural policies should be to reduce the profitability gap during the early stages. There is a need to identify policy measures, such as paying for the ecosystem services provided by agroecological farming. However, the evidence supporting the contribution of agroecology to environmental, social, and economic sustainability is still fragmented. It could be related to the heterogeneity of methods and data, different scales (i.e. farm or territorial analysis) and knowledge gaps (Mottet et al. 2020). Therefore, to account for the complexity of agroecology, further research should aim to develop more appropriate methodologies based on objective evaluation of farming activities that will be widely accepted by the scientific community.

The studies on food security and food sovereignty demonstrated that agroecology has a strong potential in contributing to reach these important and ambitious goals. However, a research gap is related to the fact that this strain of literature focused on local communities essentially characterised by an economy of subsistence. So, further empirical studies are needed to investigate whether, and to what extent, agroecology may effectively contribute to improve the nutritional status of a wider population by considering more diversified socio-economic contexts, including those of developed countries.

Market studies demonstrated that the more suitable options for connecting the production and the consumption of agroecological food products are represented by AFNs which include a range of market organisations based on the partnership and social cooperation between consumers and small-scale farmers at local level. In particular, these studies emphasised the importance of the active role of consumers as a powerful force for driving the transition process towards agroecological food systems. However, these studies also identify a relevant weakness of AFNs, mainly related to their small dimension that, ultimately, represents an important obstacle for the spread of agroecology on a large scale. Therefore, there is a need of further studies aimed to identify complementary market solutions that would allow an effective and wider linkage between production and consumption of agroecological food products.

The studies concerning the political dimension embrace mainly qualitative analyses by using case study as the main research method. What is common in the literature is the attention paid for social movements that are intrinsically related to agroecology. Struggle for land access or food autonomy of family farms are key points. Nevertheless, it seems that in Global North the focus is on policies design and implementation, rather than questioning current food system. While some political arguments around food politics are recently emerging, the debate on agroecology with respect to the southern hemisphere is still in an initial stage.

Several studies emphasised the lack of knowledge about agroecology which hinder its adoption. Therefore, it becomes crucial to increase bottom-up initiatives aimed to promote the co-creation and sharing of knowledge. Yet, research and education agenda studies revealed the lack of public financing on these programs. In addition, the majority of teaching and research institutions have been oriented to single problem-solving solutions, rather than focusing on systemic and holistic approaches as the agroecological one. Therefore, farmer-led educational initiatives may represent an alternative path respect to the specific technical knowledge being generated through more formal scientific approaches. However, further research on this kind of educational initiatives based on grassroot action is needed.

Rural and urban development studies considered the inclusion of agroecology as a viable strategy to enact equitable food systems in rural and urban contexts, due to its potential to provide a suite of social, economic and environmental services to surrounding communities. These initiatives draw on agroecological approaches to offer more employment chances to young people, especially in low-income rural contexts, also curbing their exodus towards urban areas with higher population density, in search of better living opportunities. Furthermore, this path allows for the establishment of markets for local products, the development of agroecological ethics, and the sustainable productive use of public spaces. Finally, to support long-term, large-scale research and practice in agroecology for enabling urban design and landscape, a collaboration with funding organisations and policy makers is necessary.


The current scoping review on agroecology offers valuable insights into socio-economic aspects, methodologies, and outcomes in the field. The findings align with established socio-economic topics and reveal a noteworthy gap in addressing climate change challenges within agroecological studies. Methodologically, the review underscores the prevalence of qualitative approaches and emphasises the need for a shift towards bottom-up, participatory research methods. The call for direct observation, multi-dimensional analyses, and multi-temporal assessments highlights the complexity inherent in agroecological agri-food systems.

Research implications span various topics, emphasising the context-specific nature of agroecological transitions and the crucial role of structural support and coherent policymaking. The assessment of food production systems stresses the delicate balance required between short-term economic goals and long-term economic social and environmental objectives. Studies on food security and food sovereignty underscore the potential of agroecology while signalling the need for further exploration in diverse socio-economic contexts. Market studies emphasise the role of AFNs and consumer engagement in driving agroecological transitions, recognising challenges related to scale. Political dimension studies shed light on social movements, land access, and policy focus, particularly noting a divide between the Global North and South. The review underscores knowledge gaps and advocates for bottom-up initiatives to promote agroecology in research and education agendas. Rural and urban development studies position agroecology as a strategy for equitable food systems, offering social, economic, and environmental benefits.

In summary, this review not only advances our understanding of agroecology but also highlights critical gaps and challenges that necessitate further exploration. The collaborative effort with stakeholders, policymakers, and funding organisations emerges as a key element in promoting context-specific, sustainable, and effective agroecological transition of agri-food systems.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.



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This research has been supported by the Project “AgrEcoMed—New AGRoecological approach for soil fertility and biodiversity restoration to improve ECOnomic and social resilience of MEDiterranean farming systems”, project funded by PRIMA Section 2—Multi-topic 2021 (CUP H93C21000130005) and by the Project “InnoAgroECoS – Innovazioni tecnologiche e organizzative per la transizione agroecologica dei sistemi agroalimentari locali verso un modello di economia circolare e solidale”, project funded by Università degli Studi di Bari Aldo Moro – Avviso Horizon Europe Seeds 2021 (CUP H91I21001630006).

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VF, MB, and LR contributed to the conceptualisation; VF, DC, MB, GG, SR, SS and LR assisted in writing—original draft; VF, DC, MB, GG, SR, SS, and LR contributed to writing—review and editing; VF and LR were involved in the visualisation; LR contributed to the supervision and project administration; LR acquired the funding. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Luigi Roselli.

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Fiore, V., Borrello, M., Carlucci, D. et al. The socio-economic issues of agroecology: a scoping review. Agric Econ 12, 16 (2024).

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